In Philippians 2:12-13, I once saw on the Internet that the line work out your salvation with fear and trembling is not correct. In the Greek version, it reads, Work out your own salvation with fear and exaltation. This meaning isn't about judgment but the opposite. Then connect it with verse 13, for it is God who works in you both to will and do of his good pleasure. When you read the verses this way, it makes more sense. Have you heard this before?
The phrase “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” occurs at the end of Philippians 2:12.
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling . . . Philippians 2:12 (NASB)
Meaning Of The Word “Fear”
The Greek word that is translated as “fear” is phobos. It is a noun and is normally translated as “fear, terror or alarm.” The word is translated as “fear, afraid or frightened” forty-three times in the New Testament. The word is translated as “awe” in only Acts 2:43 by every major Bible version. It is translated as “respect or respectful” in 1 Peter 2:18 and 3:2 by every major Bible version. It is translated as “reverence” in 1 Peter 3:15 by only a few Bible versions. The point is that the normal meaning of the word is “fear.”
Meaning Of The Word “Trembling”
The Greek word for “trembling” is tromos. It is a noun and it means “trembling, quaking (from fear), and quivering.” It refers to “shaking, as an outward sign of fear or of being seized with great awe” (Friberg Lexicon). The Greek word appears only five times in the New Testament (Mark 16:8; 1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Ephesians 6:5 and Philippians 2:12) and every time it is translated as “trembling” by all major Bible translations.
Meaning Of The Word “Work Out”
The Greek word for “work out” is katergazomai and means “to perform, to achieve or to accomplish.” It appears twenty-two times in the New Testament. The verb “signifies working at, and finally accomplishing a task.” That word has the sense of working at something until the task is accomplished. This is the verb in the sentence and it is a present tense command.
The Meaning of The Verse
If we put all of this together, we discover that all of the major Bible versions have accurately translated the Greek into English.
. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . (ESV)
. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . (KJV)
. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . (NKJV)
. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling . . . (NIV)
Since Philippians 2:12 is only half of the sentence, we must include the last part of the sentence in order to understand what is being said. Therefore, here are both verses 12 and 13.
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13 (NASB)
The message of Philippians 2:12-13 is addressed to Christians since Philippians 1:1 refers to the saints, that is, Christians. These verses are not describing how a person goes to heaven. It is a call or command to every Christian to obey God. That includes pursuing holiness (1 Peter 1:16) with all our hearts, and sacrificially submitting to Him. God wants us to be serious in our obedience. Yet God is the one who really helps us do all of this by His Holy Spirit. That is the message of Ephesians 5:17-18. Galatians 5:15-23 teaches us that the Holy Spirit is at work to transform us. God is working in us and every true Christian will want to be obedient (Philippians 1:6).
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6 (NASB)
1. Georg Bertram, “Κατεργάζομαι,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Eerdmans, 1964, p. 634.
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